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A new GAO report suggests that the short and long-term future for state and local revenues may be more difficult that currently anticipated, despite the economy recovering in many places.  My last blog outlined a number of the problems including that many public entities chose to reduce tax rates to balance the budget as opposed to restocking reserve funds.  When property values plummented and tourism and consumer buying diminished, the taxes related to all three plummented as well.  None have yet returned to their pre-2008 levels.  The failure to stockpile reserves caused many governments to spend down what limited reserves they had in the past 5 years as a means to avoid the hard and unpopular decision – raising taxes to collect the same revenues as before the mid-2000s cuts.  Now the lack of reserves creates an issue going forward – as costs increase faster than revenues, there are no reserves to tap into.  It is a problem that just keeps on giving. –

As I noted, I never like Chicken Little, because he never had a solution for the problem. There are solutions for local governments, some good and some bad.  Clearly local governments need to revisit the revenue production tools.  Taxes and fees will go up.  Taking more money from the utility, an all too popular decision in the past 5 or more years IS NOT THE ANSWER!  That just transfers the problem to the utility system and we already know that there are huge amounts of deferred maintenance and capital projects with utilities – $300 billion and counting at last count. The utility should be run as an enterprise, not as a cash cow to avoid hard political decisions.  Solutions for replacing those ARRA funds and federal grants for police are needed.  Just saying “We ran out of money so lay those people off” is not a solution.  What that is, is poor leadership and planning – a failure to develop the investment made by the feds to better the fiscal position of the community.  A lost opportunity.

There are many options.  And we can lay blame at the feet of elected officials, but it does not all belong there.  The citizens who elect those officials, are to blame.  Most elected officials react to citizenry, not the other way around.  And don’t forget the managers who bring bottom line business practice to local government management who recommend options. We’ve lost a generation of good government managers who understood the service aspect of government who have been banished in favor of the bottom line approach.  We need to change this as well. 

A more entrepreneurial spirit is needed.  I recall a prior entity I worked for where we proposed doing lab work in our certified water lab for other utilities.  That got shot down because it was “unfair to compete with the private sector for this work.”  Really?  That sounds like a private sector red herring.  They know they will lose business, and they can’t compete.  How is that in the spirit of capitalism? It cost less for other entities to have us do it?  A huge missed opportunity.  There are many.  If we want government to operate more like a business, we need accept the opportunities that come with it, not quash them. 

We need to market the community.  Not just give money away hoping to attract businesses that will locate for a short while.  That certainly has been a fiasco in Florida.  Other places as well I am sure.  No, we need to “sell ourselves.”  We need to marketing program to distinguish the community, its assets, its water and sewer reliability and quality, its people, education and opportunities.  It means spending money to invest in the community, not just spending money to fix a few roads and install some pavers, although they are good.  It’s also not just fixing up the distressed neighborhoods, but investing in the better ones as well. The most distressed City in America is quietly encouraging new artists and startup businesses to relocate to Detroit to take advantage of the availability of warehouses, cheap rents and a talented workforce.

We need to avoid the pitfalls of falling victim to reinforcing the past.  Florida’s economy is based on tourism, agriculture and building housing to attract retirees.  Weird business model.  Two of the three are highly susceptible to economic disruptions.  We are still recovering from 2008.  The economy also produces mostly minimum wage jobs, not the way to build a better tax base of encourage investment in education.  The state manufactures nothing, yet fails to take full advantage of what assets it might have to create industry.  As Sun-Sentinel writer Stephen Goldstein noted recently, why is it that south Florida has yet to take advantage of the private sector interest in investing in understanding age –related diseases?  Much of the local economy and the two local public universities are not positioned to take a leadership role?  Yet it is an easily marketed issue given the current population, assuming funds can be secured.  Public investment is needed, and of course that’s the rub.

We can market ourselves.  May communities have.  And most deserve better than their current lot in life.  Alexis de Tocqueville,” you get the government you deserve.”  I think we deserve better, and I think we can do better.  I think we can develop a better future and I think we can overcome challenges.  So maybe it is time for to us to change the perspective!

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A new GAO report suggests that the short and long-term future for state and local revenues may be more difficult that currently anticipated, despite the economy recovering in many places.  For most of the 1990s and the mid 2000s, many states and local governments operated with surpluses, or could have.  Many elected officials, like those in Florida (or Congress in 2001), chose to reduce tax rates to balance the budget as opposed to restocking reserve funds.  When property values plummented and tourism and consumer buying diminished, the taxes related to all three plummented as well.  None have yet returned to their pre-2008 levels.  In fact, the property values lag so badly, it may be 10-20 years in many jurisdictions before they return to their former selves.  In South Florida’s suddenly “hot” real estate market, local officials are raving about the 28% increase in property values in 2012/2013.  Sounds great until you realize that they need to increase 100% to return to pre-2008 levels.  Even in a hot market it may be over 5 years to recover.  So property values are not a short-term problem.  Some communities may never recover.  So much for saving for that rainy day.

It should be plain to all of us that the failure of those in power to stockpile reserves caused many governments to spend down what limited reserves they had in the past 5 years as a means to avoid the hard and unpopular decision – raising taxes to collect the same revenues as before the mid-2000s cuts.  Now the lack of reserves creates an issue going forward – as costs increase faster than revenues, there are no reserves to tap into.  It is a problem that just keeps on giving.  The failure to address the root cause – the failure to set revenues collections at an appropriate level and accumulate surpluses when you are lucky enough to get them.  Unfortunately the political discussion keeps going back to keeping costs down, but cuts in costs means cuts in services.  Sounds great to cut the Plantation trolley because of budget needs, but what about those citizens that rely on the trolley?  Or the businesses it serves.  Cutting Meals on Wheels which primarily serves shut-ins is a great idea in Broward County with a hue population of elderly that find it difficult to get out of the condo?  And does it really make much impact on the overall budget?  Not really.  There are cosmetic issues.  There a more symptomatic issue here?

GAO points to health care as a cost increasing faster than the rate of increase in revenues, but the latest data seems to indicate that the rate of growth may be less than projected by those opposed to the new Health Care laws.  Underfunded pensions are also a potential area of concern, but cutting employees is not the solution for that as outlined in a prior blog.  Cutting employees cuts the funding for pensions which guarantees future problems.  So that idea actually works against the goal of shoring up the problem.  So, no that is not the answer.  We are clearly paying for the sins of 15 years ago when we were awash with funds, but decided to cut or public “income.”  Who does that anyway?!?!

I never like Chicken Little, because he never had a solution for the problem.  Part 2 will outline some thoughts…


My apologies for being off line for a couple weeks.  We finished the summer semester the first week of August, and are now gearing up for the Fall semester.  Lots to do, and proposals and other projects to complete before the plunge.  The most interesting project this summer has been the conclusion of a national survey of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects.  The concept of ASR wells is to store water underground until you need it later.  If you have a utility with limited water supplies, or if you have high demands a certain part of the year but not the rest, ASR has been touted as a solution.  Storage underground eliminates the evaporation losses, but the question has always been can you get the water back.  The survey, which will be fully published next year, shows 204 sites.  It shows only about a third are operational projects and over 50 that have been functionally abandoned.  The reasons for abandoning them include metals leaching(mostly a Florida problem), the inability to recovery the water (particularly a problem in brackish aquifers), lack of capacity and trihalomethanes (a regulatory issue in a couple states).  ASR was successful with limited injection rates (700 gpm) and where the aquifer was denuddded (South Carolina).  Growth seems to be in the west after a lot of effort in the southeast.  The road forward should prove interesting.  With completion of the study it is hoped that more data can be gleaned to indicate the factors that make ASR project successful, thereby increasing the rate of success for the future. 

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